Feeling deja vu in Bangkok

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Politics in Thailand has a handy colour code: red shirts are worn by the numerically far superior rural voters, and yellow shirts by the opposing elite concentrated in the capital, Bangkok. And then there is the ubiquitous green — of the armed forces, which have carried out 12 coups since constitutional monarchy began in 1932.

On 22 May, when army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha declared the latest takeover, the global outlook for the politically fractured country turned an entirely different colour: a turgid, unpromising grey. “I will not allow Thailand to be like Ukraine or Egypt,” Gen Prayuth declared on local television as the soldiers fanned out across Bangkok, taking over television stations and ministry buildings.

But unlike with Egypt, where convoluted political interests kept the US from uttering the ‘c’ word, the Thai military action was quickly condemned as a coup, even though the military at first claimed it was only trying to “restore order” — after more than six months of anti-government protests by yellow shirts had claimed at least 28 lives.

Nearly $3.5 million in US aid to the Thai military was suspended and Secretary of State John Kerry called the junta leaders to express his disappointment. Japan, the biggest foreign investor in the country, said the coup was “regrettable” and called for democracy to be restored. India too, fresh off a clear mandate in the world’s biggest elections, moved quickly to recall an army contingent which was in Thailand for Maitree, a regular joint exercise with the Thai military.

The red shirts, who make up the vast rural support base of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile in Dubai, are poor and have had not much say in policy controlled by the urban elite in Bangkok. That changed with the rise of Thaksin in 2001. He was prime minister till a previous coup in 2006 forced him out of the country. As prime minister, Thaksin nurtured the farmers and the rural poor, inventing a constituency with his “populist” policies. The rise of this rural vote bloc has changed the face of Thai politics, though the Bangkok elites claim its overarching influence is evidence of a “flawed model of democracy”.

Even in exile, Thaksin looms large today through his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was prime minister till she was ordered to step down by a court earlier this month. The controversial court order was seen as a “judicial coup” against Yingluck by the red shirts.

The Bangkok elite, or the yellow shirts, who call themselves somewhat self-servingly as “royalists”, obviously had much to lose from this gigantic power shift to the rural areas. As a traditional power player, the military’s interests are aligned with the royalists.

Yellow shirts have been protesting against Yingluck since November, when the Lower House of Parliament passed laws to enable Thaksin’s return from exile. The vastly more numerous red shirts have so far not countered with their own protests, though that may change now with their government gone.

Yingluck is reportedly being confined in a house on the outskirts of Bangkok “for a week”, although a military spokesman took pains to avoid the word “arrest” to describe it. Also being held are over 200 journalists, intellectuals and academics. Some of them were said to be red-shirt sympathisers, or else were said to be critical of Thailand’s law protecting the monarchy. There seems to be a sense of fear in Bangkok, with usually articulate academics at think-tanks returning a terse “cannot comment at this time” to interview requests.

Interestingly, after claiming endorsement of the coup by the king, Gen Prayuth now seems to be cultivating the very farmers who are part of Thaksin’s vote bank. He has promised to pay 1 million of them the high prices the Yingluck government had pledged for their rice — higher than anyone in the global market is willing to pay. He has also promised to find ways to boost growth.

Speaking at a televised press conference four days after the coup, Gen Prayuth said he had work to do. “The less you allow me to speak, the more I will be able to work,” he said. The only word the world is waiting to hear is ‘elections’.

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